Google’s research unit, Google X, has partnered with biotechnology company Biogen Idec to study the environmental and biological contributors to the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS).

The researchers will use eHealth technology consisting of wearable sensors, software and data analysis tools to collect and analyse data from people who have MS to explore why the disease progresses differently from patient to patient.

According to the National MS Society, MS affects 2.3 million people worldwide, including about 5000 South Africans.

CEO of Biogen, George Scangos, said the partnership came about after he ran into Head of Google X, Andrew Conrad, at a digital health conference and saw the opportunity to combine Google’s technical savvy with Biogen’s knowledge about the disease.

“Our central thesis is to change healthcare from being reactive to proactive,” said Conrad. “We’re trying to understand the disease at its onset and see if we can intervene early.”

This is not the first time Biogen has used eHealth tools for its disease research. In December 2014 the organisation started using Fitbit activity trackers to gather activity and sleep pattern data from 250 participants who have MS. In mid-2014 they also collaborated with Cleveland Clinic to develop an iPad app to assess MS progression.

Google has also used eHealth in their recent innovative projects, such as in the development of a smart contact lens that measures blood glucose levels in people with diabetes, a cancer-scanning pill and a genomics database.

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